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Offering Constructive Criticism
Tips for critique partners and contest judges.

Offering constructive criticism is a difficult challenge to most people.  The criticism part is easy; it’s that constructive part that can get tricky.  Having close to three decades of experience in the public schools has afforded me an opportunity to attend countless workshops on this topic (teachers love those).  But despite all that training, I learned that dealing with adults in these situations changes the parameters considerably.  Kids are used to being told what needs fixed.  Adults are not.  Six years teaching at the college level brought that home to me, and noticing the successful ways my colleagues dealt with that challenge, proved to be very enlightening.  So, that being said, the following are some tips from educators and writers on what to do and not to do when critiquing someone’s work.

Positive comments:  This is the easy part.

  • Find something positive to say - All of us have read something that was so poorly written that finding something good to say was actually difficult.  Nonetheless, it is imperative that you do so.  By the same token, sometimes a work is so good we feel there’s no need to state the obvious.  But remember, the writer needs to hear the good stuff even if all of it is good.  Most writers are insecure about their work, even the talented ones.
  • Start and end with positive comments - Most people remember the beginnings and ends.  Leave them with a good feeling.
  • Be specific with your praise - Saying, “I liked it” is nice but doesn’t let the writer know what they’re doing well.  Something like, “I loved your use of senses.  I actually felt cold when I read the scene” lets the writer know what they’re doing well.  That is as important as knowing what they need to work on.

Negative comments- If you do this correctly, it should be very difficult and time consuming.

  • Do not use insulting adjectives-

Choosing the proper adjective is very important.  To determine if you have, simply pull the adjective out of your statement and imagine someone used it on you.  If you would find it insulting, you probably shouldn’t use it.

Ex: Referring to a writer’s dialogue as “juvenile banter” as opposed to “Seemed a little too lighthearted given the situation”.  “Lighthearted” is a much kinder adjective than “juvenile” yet they both convey a similar concern.  “Juvenile” is also ambiguous.  Is it referring to vocabulary? Manner of speech? Actions?  Where as “too lighthearted” lets the writer know it seemed too funny or at least not serious enough for the situation.

  • Qualify your statements in a manner that recognizes your position in this critique-

Remember you are giving your opinion to a colleague, not a child.

Ex:  “You may wish to consider…” or “It might be interesting if…” or “The scene might be more sensual if…”  and so forth.  This keeps the ‘power’ base with the author.  You are acknowledging this is her work and the ultimate decision is in her hands.  As opposed to,  “You need to…” or “ This is too…” or “____needs changed to ____” or  “This scene needs ____________”.  These statements imply you know more about the writer’s work than she does.  You are also telling her what to do which implies you have authority over her and she might find that offensive.

  • Make sure you know what you’re talking about.

If you are reading something in a genre other than your genre, keep that in mind.  Don’t tell a writer how to write her ‘thing’ unless you are a specialist in that area.  It’s amazing how many people like to tell me that historical characters did not use contractions.  FYI, they did.  Assume the writer knows what she’s doing.  If you really believe they are incorrect, say it in a non-confrontational way. 

Ex:  “I’m not sure, but I think….” Or “You may wish to check on…”
  • Do not attempt to change the writer’s voice

Comments like, “I would have said…” are interesting but irrelevant.  The way a writer says something is her voice.  This also goes for her choice of words and phrasing.  If they say something in a confusing manner, then approach it in that way.

Ex:  “This confused me…” as opposed to “You should have said…”.  The second statement sounds like you’re her parent, whereas the first implies that the problem may be yours-not the writer’s.  That is much more palatable and definitely within the realm of possibility. 

  • Limit your criticism.

Most of us have read work that had so many glaring problems we didn’t know where to start.  Try to limit your focus to the most important issues and no more than three of those.  Laying it all on an author at once is overwhelming and flirting with condescension.

 

Basic things to remember:

  • A writer’s work is her child.  She will be defensive if it is not handled with respect.
  • All writers think they write well.  Be cognizant of that.  She probably entered the contest or requested the critique expecting praise with some minor things that needed ‘tweaked’.
  • Be humble. 
  • Unkind words can cause serious and sometimes permanent damage.  There are many good writers out there who will not send out queries because someone somewhere along the way hurt them with mean spirited criticism.  For those people, the desire to publish is not strong enough to overcome the fear of being hurt again.
  • Get rid of the magnifying glass.  Even Nora can’t hold up under that kind of scrutiny.
  • And lastly, if you feel a writer will never get published if she doesn’t correct current practice, rest well in knowing there is a plethora of editors out there that will take care of that concern for you.  Eventually, she’ll figure it out.

 


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